Among the myriad of sub-genres within EDM, Dubstep had made a significant impact with its aggressive sound. Lets explore its origins, what influences shaped it and how to produce it.
The term ‘dubstep’ itself provides insight into the genre’s roots, with sub-genres of UK garage and drum & bass, such as 2-step and techstep, forming the EDM foundation. Jamaican dub music—a bass-heavy and atmospheric variant of reggae—contributes to the mood and stylistic elements. South London’s borough of Croydon, specifically Big Apple Records, played a crucial role in the development of Dubstep, acting as a hub for underground music lovers and fostering the experimental and dubby sound that came to define the genre.
Numerous pioneers contributed to the emergence of Dubstep, including El-B, Horsepower Productions, Hatcha, Digital Mystikz (Mala & Coki), Mary Anne Hobbs, Burial, Kode9, Skream & Benga, Youngsta, Loefah, and Joe Nice. These artists and tastemakers helped shape the sound of Dubstep in its earliest years, transforming it from an underground movement to a worldwide phenomenon.
Identifying Characteristics of Dubstep
The following features set Dubstep apart from other EDM genres and contribute to its distinct sound.
Tempo: Dubstep tracks typically have a tempo of around 140 beats per minute (BPM), which is different from other EDM sub-genres that may have faster or slower tempos. In many Dubstep tracks, the first drop, a moment when the song’s energy and intensity peak, usually occurs around the one-minute mark or after 32-64 bars, creating anticipation and excitement for the listener.
Half-time drum patterns: One of the most distinguishing features of Dubstep is its half-time drum patterns. This means that the snare drum hits on the third beat of the bar, rather than the second and fourth beats, as in traditional 4/4 time. This creates a slower, more spacious feel in the rhythm.
Prominent sub-bass frequencies: Dubstep is known for its heavy emphasis on sub-bass frequencies, which give the music its characteristic depth and power. These low-frequency sounds often drive the track and provide a solid foundation for other elements to build upon.
Wobble bass and LFO modulations: Another hallmark of Dubstep is the wobble bass, a distinctive sound created using low-frequency oscillators (LFOs) to modulate the volume and pitch of the bassline. This results in a pulsating, wobbling effect that adds movement and energy to the track.
Emphasis on syncopation and rhythm: Dubstep often features syncopated rhythms, with beats and accents falling in unexpected places, creating a sense of tension and excitement. This emphasis on rhythm sets Dubstep apart from other EDM genres, which tend to focus more on melody and harmony.
Swing Time: In Dubstep, the placement of hi-hats and other percussion elements is crucial for creating shuffle and swing in the rhythm. Unlike house or techno, Dubstep often places hi-hats on the off-beat, which may feel unnatural but can create engaging beats when combined with other percussion samples.
Use of samples: Dubstep is often characterized by its use of samples, particularly from dub and reggae music. These samples can be used to create a variety of effects, such as adding atmosphere, texture, or rhythm to the track, further contributing to the unique sound of the genre.
The Evolution of Dubstep
Dubstep, originating in South London during the early 2000s, evolved from its experimental beginnings to mainstream success between 2006 and 2010, thanks to artists like Skrillex, Rusko, and Bassnectar. The genre’s characteristic half-time drum patterns and heavy sub-bass frequencies captivated audiences. In recent years, the post-dubstep movement has seen artists like James Blake, Mount Kimbie, and Burial incorporate elements from garage, house, and techno, pushing the genre’s boundaries and maintaining its relevance in the music industry. We will discuss each phase of this evolution in detail below.
Early Phase (2002-2005)
In the early phase of dubstep, the genre found its roots in the underground scene of London, where innovative artists such as El-B, Horsepower Productions, and Kode9 made their mark. El-B, known for his pioneering work in UK garage, brought his signature dark and moody sounds to the emerging genre. Horsepower Productions, a collective of producers, played a vital role in shaping dubstep by incorporating elements of dub, reggae, and breakbeats. Kode9, a DJ and producer, also significantly influenced the genre with his experimental approach and incorporation of various styles.
Pioneering labels such as Tempa, DMZ, and Hyperdub were instrumental in promoting the genre and supporting these groundbreaking artists. Tempa, founded by DJ Hatcha and Ammunition Promotions, became a leading platform for early dubstep releases. DMZ, a label and event series founded by Mala, Coki, and Loefah, further promoted the genre through its legendary club nights. Hyperdub, established by Kode9, provided an outlet for experimental and forward-thinking dubstep productions.
Notable tracks from this period include Horsepower Productions’ “Classic Deluxe,” a track that showcases their unique fusion of styles, with heavy basslines and intricate rhythms. El-B’s “Ghost Rider” exemplifies his dark and moody sound, highlighting the genre’s affinity for atmospheric textures. Kode9’s “9 Samurai” is another standout track, featuring a distinctive blend of electronic and organic elements that helped define the early dubstep sound.
Mainstream Breakthrough (2006-2010)
During this period, Dubstep expanded beyond the UK and gained recognition in North America and around the globe. Key artists like Skream, Benga, Rusko, Caspa, Bassnectar, and Skrillex played pivotal roles in popularizing the genre. Their unique styles and innovative production techniques led to memorable collaborations and remixes, which further fueled the growth of Dubstep. For example, the iconic remix of La Roux’s “In For The Kill” by Skream gained significant attention and radio play, introducing many listeners to the genre. Another notable collaboration was “Fabrication” by Emalkay and Caspa, which combined Emalkay’s cinematic soundscapes with Caspa’s signature wobble bass. Rusko’s remix of Kid Sister’s “Pro Nails,” featuring Kanye West, also showcased the genre’s crossover potential by blending Dubstep’s heavy basslines with hip-hop elements. These collaborations and remixes played an essential role in shaping Dubstep’s sound and expanding its reach during this era.
Notable tracks from this era include:
- Skream - “Midnight Request Line”: Released in 2005, this track became a seminal piece that showcased Skream’s talent for combining haunting melodies with powerful basslines. Its innovative use of syncopated rhythms helped define the genre and propel it into the mainstream.
- Benga & Coki - “Night”: Released in 2007, “Night” was a groundbreaking collaboration between Benga and Coki that introduced new textures and atmospheres to Dubstep. The track’s eerie synths and heavy bass drops demonstrated the genre’s unique sound and potential.
- Rusko - “Cockney Thug”: A classic track from 2007 that encapsulated Rusko’s signature blend of hard-hitting beats, wobbly basslines, and playful vocal samples. “Cockney Thug” helped to popularize a more aggressive, dancefloor-oriented side of Dubstep.
- Bassnectar - “Timestretch”: Released in 2010, this track highlighted Bassnectar’s experimental approach to Dubstep, as he combined ethereal melodies with heavy bass drops and intricate rhythms. “Timestretch” showcased the genre’s versatility and potential for fusing diverse musical influences.
- Skrillex - “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”: Skrillex’s breakout track from 2010 played a major role in bringing Dubstep to a wider audience, thanks to its catchy melodies, aggressive bass drops, and genre-defying production techniques, such as the incorporation of glitchy, chopped-up vocal samples. The track’s success marked a turning point in Dubstep’s evolution and influence on the global music scene.
The culmination of Dubstep’s mainstream breakthough was “Bass Head” by Bassnectar, released in 2010. It showcased a signature style that fused heavy basslines, wobbles, and aggressive synths with elements from other genres. The track’s powerful, energetic sound resonated with listeners, solidifying Bassnectar’s position as a key figure in the genre’s expansion and contributing to the growth of Dubstep during this pivotal period.
Post-Dubstep and Experimentation (2011-present)
Since 2011, Dubstep has witnessed significant diversification and blending with other genres, leading to the emergence of the post-Dubstep movement. Key artists such as James Blake, Mount Kimbie, Burial, and Zeds Dead have contributed to this evolution by pushing the boundaries of Dubstep and incorporating elements from genres like ambient, indie, and future garage into their work, each with their unique styles and influences.
James Blake, a classically trained pianist and singer-songwriter, draws inspiration from R&B, gospel, and electronic music. His track “Limit to Your Love” features soulful vocals, minimalist piano-driven production, and spacious sub-bass, embodying the introspective and emotional side of post-Dubstep.
Mount Kimbie, a British electronic duo, is known for their innovative approach to sound design and their penchant for blending ambient music with glitchy, intricate beats. Their track “Carbonated” showcases their ability to create atmospheric soundscapes that evoke a sense of nostalgia and melancholy, pushing the boundaries of Dubstep into more experimental territories.
Burial, a mysterious and enigmatic producer, is heavily influenced by UK garage, ambient, and 2-step. His track “Kindred” exemplifies the haunting, ethereal side of post-Dubstep by merging intricate sound design with subtle, skittering percussion and ghostly vocal samples, offering a cinematic and immersive listening experience.
Zeds Dead, a Canadian electronic duo, has a diverse musical background that includes hip-hop, house, and drum and bass. Their track “Adrenaline” displays their signature intensity and bass-heavy sound while incorporating traditional Dubstep elements with cinematic flair and unique production techniques.
The impact of post-Dubstep on the broader music landscape is evident in its influence on other genres and artists. For example, in mainstream pop, Rihanna’s hit single “Where Have You Been” features Dubstep-inspired breakdowns, while Kanye West’s “Power” includes heavy bass and wobbles reminiscent of Dubstep. Additionally, post-Dubstep has encouraged experimentation and genre-blending within electronic music, with artists like Flume, Mura Masa, and Jamie xx incorporating post-Dubstep elements into their work. This blending of styles has not only pushed the boundaries of electronic music but also changed how listeners perceive and appreciate the diverse range of sounds within the genre.
The legacy and impact of Dubstep on both the electronic dance music scene and the broader music landscape are undeniable. With its distinctive sound and innovative production techniques, Dubstep has become a major force in contemporary music. The genre has influenced countless artists across various styles and genres, resulting in a richer and more diverse music culture.
As EDM producer myself, I took a deep dive into the world of Dubstep by producing “Activ8te - What does it mean to be happy?” to better understand the genre’s intricacies and unique qualities. This hands-on exploration allowed me to appreciate the appeal and versatility of Dubstep.
Throughout its history, Dubstep has continuously evolved, adapting to changing trends and inspiring new generations of artists. From its early days in the underground London scene to its mainstream breakthrough and the subsequent post-Dubstep experimentation, the genre has demonstrated a remarkable ability to stay relevant and dynamic. As Dubstep continues to evolve and blend with other genres, it remains a vital and creative force in the world of electronic music.
Looking towards the future, Dubstep’s prospects remain bright as the genre continues to inspire fresh ideas and foster new talent. As technology advances and music production becomes more accessible, we can expect Dubstep to remain at the forefront of innovation, pushing the boundaries of what electronic music can achieve. The genre’s enduring appeal and its willingness to adapt ensure that Dubstep will remain a significant and influential presence in the global music landscape for years to come.